A few weeks back, I witnessed a Facebook exchange that pushed my perceptions of the role clergy play in solemnizing marriages. Clergy are agents of the state and are able to sign marriage certificates, though each state is different in how they define the clergy role. But the general sentiment is that clergy sign the certificates after a religious wedding ceremony.
To push against this sentiment, my friend posted the following on his publicly-viewable facebook. I will quote it verbatim but I won’t link to it unless he says it’s okay.
To my clergy friends:
If someone were truly hungry, but didn’t want to pray before the meal you served them, you would still feed them.
If someone were homeless and you offered them shelter even though they didn’t want to receive a liturgical blessing, surely they would still be welcome.
If someone who isn’t religious is imprisoned and you visit them but they don’t want to pray, we still have the responsibility to be with them.
Why then are we so reluctant to sign a marriage license for a couple that doesn’t want a religious ceremony? Is it not a gift that we can give to those in need?
My clergy friend seems to reference Matthew 25, the commonly-called “least of these” passage where Jesus imagines an apocalypse where Jesus says “whenever you fed the hungry, watered the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited those sick or in prison, then you did those to me.”
At first glance, the actions in Matthew 25 are acts of charity and hospitality, not efforts to effect a status change in an individual. However, for people who are going to get married anyway and are just looking for a justice of the peace or someone ordained over the Internet, to send them away to someone else is not an act of hospitality or charity at all. Their status will change regardless of what the clergy does, so why not participate and offer their services as an act of charity to them?
I know that clergy look down their noses at mail-order clergy who can be ordained online. But those folks serve two populations that are not traditionally covered by professional clergy:
- Folks who would never darken the door of a church. One of my clergy friends recounted that she signed the marriage certificates of a homeless couple who wanted the spouse to continue to receive the meager veterans checks in case the other spouse died. This couple had no money to pay a JotP. My friend signed the marriage certificate and hasn’t seen much of them since, but knows they are taken care of.
- Folks who want to be legally married in a different state than their religious ceremony. I am a member of this population. I had my religious marriage ceremony in Seattle with family and friends, but my future spouse and I wanted to be legally married in a state where marriage was equal. In 2006, that meant our then-present home of Massachusetts. So we had a brief ceremony and my mail-order ordained friend signed our wedding certificate that reflected our values of marriage equality.
To both these populations, they would be getting married without the clergy anyway. To both these populations, the church (and in some ways the state) has set a standard that these populations are not willing to reach. If a clergy were to offer marriage services, would they be denigrating the dignity of marriage? Or would they be offering a graceful alternative to the secular world’s costs and prohibitions?
I’m not convinced enough to start signing certificates willy-nilly, but it is an interesting argument that frames our civil agency in the context of a gift rather than a hurdle to overcome.
Any thoughts out there? In what ways is solemnizing marriages for those just looking for a signature an act of grace or an act of disgrace? Sound off below…